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Saunders v. Hall-Long

United States District Court, D. Delaware

October 4, 2019

ROBERT SAUNDERS, Plaintiff,
v.
LT. GOV. BETHANY A. HALL-LONG, et al., Defendants.

          Robert Saunders, James T. Vaughn Correctional Center, Smyrna, Delaware, Pro Se Plaintiff.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NOREIKA, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Robert Saunders (“Plaintiff), an inmate at the James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, Delaware, filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (D.I. 1). He appears pro se and has paid the filing fee. He has also filed a motion to change venue, a request for counsel, and a motion to expedite proceedings. (D.I. 5; D.I. 6; D.I. 8). The Court proceeds to review and screen the matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(a).[1]

         II. BACKGROUND

         In November 1976, Plaintiff was tried for the murder of Joseph L. Johnson. See Saunders v. Taylor, No. 95-259-SLR, 1997 WL 129347 (D. Del. Feb. 27, 1997). A Delaware Superior Court jury found Saunders guilty on the murder and related charges and sentenced him as a habitual offender to six concurrent life terms, without the possibility of parole or probation. Id. at *2. The Delaware Supreme Court affirmed his convictions and sentences on direct appeal. Id. at *1. Thereafter, Plaintiff filed several motions for postconviction relief pursuant to Delaware Superior Court Criminal Rule 61 (“Rule 61 motions”). Id. at *2. The Superior Court denied the Rule 61 motions, and those decisions were affirmed on post-conviction appeal. Id. Next, Plaintiff filed two petitions for a writ of mandamus, and they were denied. Id.

         Plaintiff has also filed five petitions for habeas corpus relief in the federal district court. See Saunders v. Markell, No. 11-1078-GMS, 2013 WL 663407, at *1 (D. Del. Feb. 21, 2013). The first petition was denied on the merits, the following three petitions were denied as second or successive, and the last petition was summarily denied. Saunders, 1997 WL 129347, at *2. The fifth petition that sought habeas relief alleged that Delaware's governor had denied Plaintiff's commutation request despite a unanimous recommendation for a commutation of sentence from the Delaware Department of Correction, the Board of Parole, and the Board of Pardons in retaliation for Plaintiff exposing health care and monetary problems within the Delaware Department of Correction, and that the denial violated Plaintiff's rights to due process and equal protection. Id.

         The Complaint names as Defendants the president and members of the Board of Pardons. Between 2011 and 2014, Plaintiff appeared before the Board of Pardons on two occasions and both times received unanimous recommendations for commutation. (D.I. 1 ¶ 11). He alleges that there have been no negative events since those hearings, other than his continued incarceration. (Id.). Plaintiff sought commutation in 2018 and alleges that he was not allowed to physically appear at the 2018 Board of Pardons hearing. (Id. ¶ 12). While not specifically stated, the alleged facts indicate that the Board of Pardons denied the 2018 commutation request. Plaintiff's daughter obtained the “denial consideration information” from the Board of Pardons, and Plaintiff alleges the information was incorrect. (Id.)

         Plaintiff alleges that he was previously informed that commutation consideration was “based on factual information extracted from Department of Correction[], investigative reports of offense(s), prison programming and work history, academic trade training, prison adjustment, psychiatric reports, and risk assessment based on prognosis for success or failure if released” but, none of this was considered in his case. (Id. ¶ 18). Plaintiff alleges that Defendants completely ignore his many medical problems. (Id. ¶ 19). Plaintiff alleges that despite the fact that he provided substantial evidence supporting commutation, Defendants “denied Plaintiff or those desiring [to] speak [on] his behalf [the] opportunity [to] do [the] same.” (Id. ¶ 21).

         The Complaint alleges that Defendants are members of a Board that is dysfunctional and secretive and uses “make-up as you-go policies and procedures that are neither principled nor consistent.” (Id. ¶ 15). The Complaint alleges that the Board of Pardons has rules that Plaintiff has requested for the purpose of determining how many are used, but he has been unable to secure this information. (Id.). Plaintiff alleges that Delaware's governor has never adopted criteria for the commutation of a sentence even though the Delaware Constitution provides that the ultimate decision rests with the governor. (Id.). Plaintiff alleges that he, and other black inmates, have no idea how to determine what criteria are used when commutation recommendations are made and that some decisions are irrational and are based on subjective and unknown criteria. (Id. ¶ 16). The Complaint alleges that the procedures incorporated in the hearing process are arbitrary, capricious and whimsical. (Id. ¶ 21).

         The Complaint “challenges the Board of Pardons regular discriminatory practices in hearing cases for commutation and the utilization of racial overtones in deciding blacks serving life without parole sentences.” (Id. ¶ 10). The Complaint alleges that the Board of Pardons justified commutation for Robert Martin (“Martin”), a white inmate, based upon a series of omitted information. (Id. ¶ 13). The Complaint alleges that the Board of Pardons uses a double-standard for whites and blacks in the commutation process going back to the 1985 case of John Bailey (“Bailey”) and the 1990 case of John Judge (“Judge”) and Jon Berger (“Berger”).[2] (Id. ¶ 14). Plaintiff alleges that blacks without previous records of any nature are denied commutation, while whites with far worse criminal and institutional records are granted commutation and, in one case, it was approved by the governor. (Id.). Plaintiff alleges that the Delaware commutation process “is infested with racism, politics and personal values.” (Id. ¶ 17). Finally, the Complaint alleges that the Board of Pardons “has in place a system that overly, systematically discriminates against blacks serving life without parole sentences.” (Id.).

         Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief (including the adoption of administrative procedures[3] in the commutation process and an immediate rehearing) as well as actual, consequential, and punitive damages.

         III. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A federal court may properly dismiss an action sua sponte under the screening provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915A(b) if “the action is frivolous or malicious, fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, or seeks monetary relief from a defendant who is immune from such relief.” Ball v. Famiglio, 726 F.3d 448, 452 (3d Cir. 2013); see 28 U.S.C. § 1915A (actions in which prisoner seeks redress from a governmental defendant). The Court must accept all factual allegations in a complaint as true and take them in the light most favorable to a pro se plaintiff. See Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 229 (3d Cir. 2008); Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007). Because Plaintiff proceeds pro se, his pleading is liberally ...


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